On the occasion of the 2021 World Heritage Day, UNESCO organized a workshop entitled “ESD for 2030 framework and the Berlin Conference: Time to act – Now or Never Confirmation”. The WFTU presented a very important document “The position of the WFTU for the preservation and rescue of the mother tongues of the Peoples” written and presented by Kali Patouna, WFTU Advisor on cultural and historical issues, member of the Women’s Secretariat.
February 21 was established as International Mother Language Day by the UNESCO General Assembly on November 17, 1999 and has been repeated every year since February 2000.
Once again, according to UNESCO, every two weeks a mother tongue disappears, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. At least 43% of the 6,000 languages that are estimated to be spoken in the world are in danger of extinction . And unfortunately, as the CONAIE representative said in his 2019 speech, “The disappearance of mother tongues would constitute a cultural tragedy” .
And how can it not be after all! The mother tongue is the most essential element of cultural identity, the most visible element of a culture, since through it the collective knowledge, beliefs and worldview of each people or tribe, forged throughout the ages, are expressed. Among other things, these particular characteristics and ancestral traditions of each tribe contribute to the integral formation of the national identity of the country in which they live.
That is why the European powers that have created extensive colonies in all the other continents of the planet sought the extinction of the mother tongues of the indigenous peoples of the colonies. In addition to the economic and political control of the colony, its cultural alteration was another means of greater exploitation of the peoples and its natural resources by the colonialists.
Today, the main reason for the loss of mother tongues is the decline in the population that speaks them. According to the United Nations, indigenous peoples number 370 million worldwide, living in 90 countries , representing more than 5% of the world’s population. It is estimated that traditional indigenous territories are home to 80% of the planet’s biodiversity , while their forests are rich in fossil fuels.
Again, according to the United Nations, indigenous peoples live excluded and marginalized from their states, and are the poorest strata of the population in the countries where they live, reaching up to 60% , as a result of which they suffer from malnutrition and die of simple illnesses due to lack of medical attention. The natural environment in which they live is increasingly polluted by the extractive action of large multinationals, so that in many cases the natives do not even have access to drinking water. Therefore, its total population is shrinking each year at a rapid rate, through its natural extermination.
On the other hand, indigenous peoples are very often victims of acts of intimidation or violence, while their collective rights are violated through their forced eviction by decisions of their states. This is because their presence on their ancestral lands is nothing more than an obstacle to the economic activity of large multinational corporations, who covet their rich subsoil in minerals and oil, their virgin forests suitable for logging, or the large areas where they live to turn them into lucrative amusement parks. That is why they are being violently and forcibly evicted, with excuses such as protection of the flora and fauna of the habitat in which they live, or their integration into the social fabric of the country.
An example of this is the case of the San or Bushmen, who were driven from their land in Botswana , to establish private safari parks. Wealthy tourists hunt there, such as the former King of Spain Juan Carlos, who caused a storm of reactions in the midst of the pandemic, for posting his photo during a safari, while Spanish people died by the dozen due to lack of financing the sector of public health.
But mother tongues are lost for another reason as well. The socioeconomic situation of the natives pushes them towards large urban centers, where they are forced to use the official language of the state, in order to integrate into modern society, to find work or access services. Since most mother tongues lack a recorded alphabetical system, their perpetuation lies in the oral transmission from the oldest members of the tribe to the younger ones. Thus, with the integration of the individuals of a linguistic community into the official language of the state, the number of members of the tribe who speak a particular language gradually decreases, until it disappears completely.
The efforts of organizations such as UNESCO or other NGOs to integrate mother tongues into national education systems and record them in print and electronic media to save them are commendable. Nevertheless, there is a serious danger that the languages will be saved but there will be no people who speak them. They will be taught in schools, as we learn Latin or ancient Greek today, as dead languages. Because we must not fool ourselves, the integration of people into another culture leads to the total loss of their mother tongue and cultural identity in the long term, as we have seen happening with economic immigrants in Europe and elsewhere during the 19th and 20th centuries, where the only thing that now reminds us of the origin is the surname…
Thus, either by the physical extermination of the members of the linguistic community or by their integration into the dominant culture, mother tongues are lost, leading multilingual and multicultural societies to extinction. This is a crushing acculturation, eventually leading to a single culture where everyone wears the same clothes, eats the same food, listens to the same music and speaks the same language, so they will be a great market for homogeneous products throughout the world.
After all, multinational cartels want to deliberately influence the culture, language, customs and traditions of the peoples whose natural resources exploit for their profits, as the peoples who forget their history, language and culture, submit more easily to the capitalists.
So capitalist profitability, once again, is the cause of a humanitarian tragedy. Indigenous peoples who have survived through the centuries natural from disasters and inhospitable environments, who have strongly resisted colonial violence and aggression, are in danger of extinction in the mere 21st century because of some multinationals that want to increase their profits, either through forced expulsions or by forcing them to integrate into the dominant culture to get out of extreme poverty.
The World Federation of Trade Unions, which since its foundation has fought on the side of the peoples for their independence from the colonialists, considers the preservation and rescue of the mother tongues of the peoples as well as the protection of indigenous peoples so that they can live and work with dignity and can safeguard the traditions of their cultural heritage, as a vital matter. We continue to support this demand through events and interventions in International Organizations and we call on the unions, affiliates and friends of the WFTU to firmly include the issue of the mother tongues of the peoples in their claims.